Lawa Toyu, the last Atayal elder with a traditional facial tattoo, passed away early yesterday morning after her health deteriorated since being hospitalized in January with pneumonia. Doctors said that the cause of death was multiple organ failure.
Council of Indigenous Peoples Minister Icyang Parod expressed his condolences and said that the council would help with the funeral.
Despite Miaoli County records showing that Lawa Toyu was born in 1923, her fellow villagers said she delayed reporting her household registry information by five years.
Atayal facial tattoos were recognized in 2016 by the Miaoli County Government as a cultural asset.
The county collaborated with Lawa Toyu and Chien Yu-ying (簡玉英), another Atayal elder, to make the documentary Marks of Glory — The Facial Tattoos of the Atayal (榮耀的印記─泰雅文面).
Lawa Toyu became the last Atayal with facial tattoos after Chien died early last year.
The tattoos represent the purity of the tribe and are a mark of coming of age or bravery. They are also believed to allow the spirits of the deceased to cross the Rainbow Bridge to join their ancestors.
Miaoli County Councilor Huang Yueh-e (黃月娥), an Atayal, said that facial tattoos for Atayal women also meant that they knew how to weave and were “eligible to marry.”
The practice was stopped during the Japanese colonial era, Huang said, adding that with the passing of Lawa Toyu, “I feel that part of my culture is lost.”
While Lawa Toyu recognized that she was one of the few remaining from a bygone era and the cultural significance of the tattoos, she did not wish for her children or their children to undergo the process, because it was painful.
In the documentary, she said the process took an entire day and her face bled and became swollen.
“We are those who have truly lived by the Atayal traditions. The younger generations who can write must record this tradition, do not forget… Once we are gone, there will be no one else with facial tattoos,” Lawa Toyu said in the film. “Without written history, our Atayal progeny will become indistinguishable from the Han people.”
Following Lawa Toyu’s passing, Lin Chi-mei (林智妹), a Sediq who lives in Hualien, is said to be the only Aborigine with a traditional facial tattoo in Taiwan.